The future of Europe hung in the balance at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The British, led by the Duke of Wellington, held Napoleon's Grand Armeé to a standstill, waiting for General Blücher and his Prussians to add their weight to the battle. Without his Prussian allies, the best the Duke could expect was an inconclusive outcome that would prolong the fighting. With them, Wellington could end Napoleon's dreams of empire. As it turned out, Blücher arrived toward the end of the day and tipped the scales against the French. Europe could look forward to peace and stability.

The future of Europe again hangs in the balance, not because of the forces of empire but because of the threat of financial chaos, and all are looking for a latter-day Blücher. The European Central Bank (ECB) could and should play this role. It is the only party with the necessary financial resources to reliquefy markets and calm them. But the bank's leadership shows remarkably little commitment, certainly less than the Prussians and the British did that Sunday in June 1815. 

The ECB's abilities were on display late last year. During much of Europe's debt crisis, the bank had taken a hands-off attitude. And in early 2011, when Europe's periphery desperately needed credit and could not get decent terms, the ECB actually raised rates twice for a total of 50 basis points. But last August, as matters reached extremes and investor concerns spread from Greece, Ireland and Portugal to the much larger economies of Italy and Spain, Europe's central bank realized that matters threatened the zone's cohesion and the euro's existence. It took action, buying Italian and Spanish bonds in secondary markets. Markets calmed immediately. Long-term Italian and Spanish bond yields fell by 100 basis points in short order.

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